Earlier this summer, Theresa May committed the UK to achieving net zero carbon emission by 2050. This means that within our lifetimes we will see the UK adding no more greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. In response, Labour has indicated that it might want to go further faster, with newspapers reporting that John McDonnell is considering aiming for net zero by 2030. For those of us in the environment movement who have been campaigning for decades even to get climate change on the political agenda, both of these are significant steps in the right direction. But commitments need to be followed by actions. So how will Labour find the policies that meet these ambitious carbon reduction targets and attract voters to the party too?
To begin, if we are to bring about the scale of transformation needed to reach these ambitious targets, we need environmental policies that have the widespread appeal to move our country to change. In these unprecedented times, it is easy to believe that Britain is an irrevocably divided country and that political parties need to choose sides – leave or remain, north or south, public or private, extinction rebellion or climate denial. But as we see the creeping impact of climate change coupled with the effects of technology and automation, issues troubling low-income households now – like job security and the affordability of housing – will be worrying middle-class households in the near future. When it comes to the environment, we are definitely all in it together. So to tackle climate change with the scale and urgency needed, we cannot just talk to the core of environmentalists or Labour supporters. We need policies that have broad appeal – that will win the support of voters in Swindon and Swansea, as well as in Liverpool and London. This will mean offering a sense of optimism for the future – focusing on promoting opportunity and creating jobs rather than restricting and protecting old industries; on increasing fairness and improving people’s life chances than simply safeguarding what we have already; on empowering rather than worrying; and on international cooperation rather than isolationism.
Secondly, to kickstart this move to build a better future, we need to see a massive investment in the UK’s infrastructure, to upgrade systems – many built in the steam age – to be fit for the low-carbon, digital age. Energy, water and transport in particular need to be in our sights if we are not to see vital services being unaffordable to many in the future. We must move towards a much less wasteful distributed energy system which allows much more space for smaller-scale renewables, coupled with a serious programme of energy efficiency measures; stop the shocking neglect of our water supplies while water companies profit and take a coherent view of transport infrastructure so that it grows within our carbon budgets. To do this needs serious government leadership, but also partnership with the businesses sitting on the financial resources, as well as with local government and the NGOS which have the on the ground delivery experience to make much of this happen.
And they are ready and willing. While the Tories have been sending out mixed messages about their commitment to tackling climate change by cancelling programmes like feed-in tariffs, the low-carbon investments, jobs and industries of the future have been put on ice. A Labour government with clear plans for a low-carbon future could light the touch paper to launch these investments, creating jobs and opportunities in the UK instead.
Finally, whether we aim for net zero by 2030 or 2050, moving to a low carbon future will create a massive momentum for change in the UK – and globally. This presents a huge opportunity for a Labour government to harness this change, to bring about the kind of progressive future for which we have been campaigning for so long. This means being careful in selecting our policies to deliver a low-carbon future, choosing those which have the potential to increase fairness as well as tackle environmental problems. Of course this seems like a lofty ambition, but at SERA we have put environmental justice and social justice on an equal footing from our foundation in 1974. And we are confident that the policies are out there: encouraging community and cooperatively owned renewable energy so that we decarbonise our energy supply, empower citizens and share profits more fairly; insulating homes and building new passive housing, so that families can have low-bill or even no-bill lifestyles; investing in technology so that we can live in a more connected world, without fearing for our impact on the planet; creating low carbon jobs that are secure because they are in industries that aren’t vulnerable to volatile and fluctuating oil prices; and supporting international cooperation, across Europe and the world, raising up human rights and reducing conflict, against the forces of catastrophic climate change.
The bar is high, but if Labour can put forward a story for the environment that resonates with our values and delivers for people and planet, as well as showing fresh thinking and a compelling positive vision for the future, we will also be able to build the broad appeal and support we need to win a general election.
This article is part of a Fabian debate on Labour and the climate emergency. Read the other contributions here:
Clare Hymer argues for decades in the global north, environmentalism has been framed as a white, middle-class preoccupation; this framing couldn’t be further from the truth.
A Labour government that is committed to restructuring and decarbonising our economy to tackle the climate emergency must put trade unions and workers at the heart of its approach, writes Nadia Whittome.
Ed Miliband MP argues the climate change battle is one we can’t duck because of the disaster that confronts the world if we do not act. But it is also an opportunity to reimagine our world. The Labour party can and should seize this moment.
When it comes to the climate emergency, actions speak louder than words. Sue Hayman MP, Judith Blake and Alex Sobel MP write about the steps that need to be taken by local authorities and parliament.
Green issues are creating more concern than ever before with action needed across a number of fronts. We know the government must act now, but what should this look like in practice? Stephanie Hilborne, Alan Whitehead MP, Noga Levy-Rapoport and Farhana Yamin weigh in.